Nuns Resurrect Endangered Salamanders in First-of-its-Kind Conservation Effort

This may be the first time a religious group has been involved in amphibian breeding program, an expert says.

23 Nuns Fight For the Survival of an Endangered Mexican Salamander

Lake Pátzcuaro, the third largest lake in Mexico, lies a little more than 200 miles west of Mexico City. As an endorheic basin, the lake does not drain into the sea—and it’s the sole home for a rare, unique species of salamander.

Locally known as “achoques,” the Lake Pátzcuaro salamander (Ambystoma dumerilii) is an amphibian that lives its entire life in freshwater. With gills that flare out when submersed, the salamander looks similar to the axolotl, a relative. It’s critically endangered, with rough estimates saying there are fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild.

“This could be extinct in the next 20 or 30 years,” Omar Domínguez, a conservation biologist at Morelia’s Michoacán University, writes in an email.

But it seems the Lake Pátzcuaro salamander is getting some divine intervention. With Domínguez as breeding program coordinator, a convent, a zoo, and Michoacán University are teaming up in an international conservation effort to save the species. (Related: read about the hellbender, a giant U.S. salamander on the brink of extinction.)

After her first capybara died of liver failure, Melanie Typaldos bought Garibaldi Rous. The Texan was attracted to the giant rodents, which tend to die in captivity, after seeing wild ones in Venezuela.
Florida animal trainer Pamela Rosaire Zoppe bought Chance from pet owners who could no longer keep him. He now appears in Hollywood films. “Chimps are so intelligent that they get bored,” she says.
Sasha, a cougar, is “the love of my life,” says Mario Infanti, who underwent more than a thousand hours of training before he acquired his first wild cats. The Florida musician had Sasha declawed when she was a month old, but “she can still bite.”
A Burmese python entwines Albert Killian in the Florida home he shares with 60 snakes. Tags noting the proper antivenom—and the nearest hospital that carries it—are posted next to venomous pets.
John Matus bought Boo Boo impulsively as a cub. Last summer the Ohio man gave her to a wildlife sanctuary. “She needs to be with her own kind,” he says. “It’s a lonely life.”
Shawn Geary and Allo. Shawn is an IT professional. His grandmother had skunks that he played with as a child. His wife Carole always wanted one.
Bobbi Phelan bought a patas monkey in part because they tend to avoid conflict. Even so, Eujo once got loose and scratched Phelan’s son and bit her dog. Eujo’s cage is attached to the living room of Phelan’s Indiana home, with a pet door leading outside to a larger enclosure.
Ohio veterinarian Melanie Butera took in Dillie after the blind farm deer’s mother rejected her. Dillie used to sleep with Butera but now has her own room. “She’s treated like a princess,” says Butera.
Alison Pascoe Friedman, a zoologist, acquired Amelia in 1980 as a rescue and trained her for a behavioral research project. When the project ended, she brought the capuchin monkey to her home in New York. Amelia, 45, died in her sleep after this photo was taken.

“My life is completely about the animals,” says Leslie-Ann Rush, a Florida horse trainer. “I rarely leave them overnight or take a vacation.” She raised her kangaroos and lemurs from infancy.
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“This is probably the first time a religious community has been involved with amphibian conservation,” says Gerardo Garcia, a Chester Zoo expert who is closely involved in the conservation effort. “Everybody can be a conservationist.”

Saving Salamanders

In 2014, Gerardo Garcia, who is also the curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates at the Chester Zoo in England, visited Mexico while working on a breeding program for threatened freshwater fish. While in country, his colleagues at Michoacán University encouraged him to visit the Sisters of the Monastery of the Dominican Order—and their salamander conservation operations—in nearby Pátzcuaro. (Watch: “5 Giant Salamander Species Identified—Any They’re All in Danger”)

“It’s not something I generally do on my fieldtrip, going to meet the nuns,” Garcia says.

For the past 150 years, the nuns in the convent had been sustainably raising the rare salamanders. The amphibians are a crucial ingredient in a mysterious medicine the convent makes that is believed to cure coughs, asthma, and anemia, so the women breed the animals in order to keep their tradition alive. (Related: “The Secret Lives of Mexican Nuns”)

Of the 23 nuns in the convent, three or four live and work at the breeding facility at a time to take care of the animals. The facility is made up of two large rooms filled with tanks that can hold up to 400 salamanders. The nuns feed organic earthworms to the amphibians and use a nearby well to change their water regularly. (Related: Meet Professor Wu, the only Chinese giant salamander in the U.K.)

“They have a fresh environment, freshly harvested food, and they have a fully dedicated staff,” Garcia says. “It’s just what they need. You almost create an ideal environment for the endangered species.”

Giant Salamanders Helped to Spawn

In addition to the everyday needs of the salamanders, the nuns measure and microchip the animals, as well as pair them up for breeding. Garcia says that the untrained eye can’t distinguish one salamander from another, but the nuns, with all their years of experience, can. (Related: “How a Runaway Nun Helped an Outlaw Monk Change the World”)

Around the World

The Chester Zoo also has a small population of Lake Pátzcuaro salamanders in England, and the Michoacán University and a private breeder have populations in Mexico. But Garcia says the population at the convent is the most viable because the salamanders live the closest to their native environment. The closer they are to the lake, the less likely the animals are to be exposed to alien pathogens. (Related: read about the biggest amphibian on Earth)

“These specimens that we have in Europe may not be as vital as the animals they have in the convent or in the university,” Garcia says. “All the different questions we need to address in the lake are in the communities.”

As a top predator, Domínguez says the salamanders are important to Mexican biodiversity. They have also been a staple of the region since Pre-Hispanic times, he adds, and they’re crucial for cultural reasons.

For now, Garcia says the animals can be bred slowly and there’s no exact timeline for when they can be reintroduced to the wild. The researchers must make sure the species can thrive in captivity before they begin slowly releasing a few individuals to see how they fare outdoors. (Related: “ Watch How Bizarre ‘Water Monsters’ Get a Second Chance”)

“It will take at least a good year, if not two. After a year, we will have a better feeling,” Garcia says. “2020 will potentially be the beginning of trial releases.”

A rare Santa Catalina Island fox, Urocyon littoralis catalinae, at Catalina Island Conservancy.
A Florida scrub jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens oocleptica, at Tracy Aviary.
A critically endangered flattened musk turtle, Sternotherus depressus.
Narrow-headed garter snake, Thamnophis rufipunctatus, at the Phoenix Zoo.
A spotted seal, Phoca largha, at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
A Kentucky Arrow Darter, Etheostoma spilotum, at Conservation Fisheries.
A federally threatened Southeastern beach mouse, Peromyscus polionotus niveiventris. There are only a few thousand of this species left.
A vulnerable, federally threatened male Steller's eider, Polysticta stelleri, at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
An American crocodile, Crocodilus acutus, at the Omaha Zoo.
Oregon spotted frog, Rana pretiosa, in Deschutes County, OR.
A wood stork, Mycteria Americana, at the Sedgwick County Zoo.
A Yellow-blotched map turtle, Graptemys flavimaculata. This species is listed as vulnerable.
A Stock Island tree snail, Orthalicus reses reses, a federally-endangered species.
A federally threatened New Mexican ridge-nosed rattlesnake, Crotalus willardi obscurus.
An endangered juvenile Yosemite toad, Bufo or Anaxyrus canorus.
Manchado, a near threatened Mexican spotted owl, Strix occidentalis, at The Wildlife Center in Espanola, NM.
A crayfish, Cambarus callainus, wild caught near Dry Fork, West Virginia.
Red knot, Calidris canutus, a candidate species for listing due to a rapid decline in population.
A frosted flatwoods salamander, Ambystoma cingulatum, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. This species is listed as vulnerable.
A spectacled Eider, Somateria fischeri.
An eastern indigo snake, Drymarchon corais couperi.
A salado salamander, Eurycea chisholmensis, at the Dallas Zoo.
Spring pygmy sunfish, Elassoma alabamae, taken at Conservation Fisheries in Knoxville, TN.
A federally threatened Gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus.
Snail darter, Percina tanasi, at Conservation Fisheries in Knoxville, TN.
An endangered Piping plover, Charadrius melodus.
A federally threatened ringed map turtle, Graptemys oculifera.
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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified salamanders as lizards; salamanders are a type of amphibian, whereas lizards are a type of reptile. 


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